» Archive for: April, 2013


How do we do Research about social movements? What is the difference between doing research on and with social movements? What are the dilemmas we find in our research?

Last Monday 4 March, four members of CIRI – Kees Biekart, Wendy Harcourt, Silke Heumann and me (Rosalba Icaza) addressed these questions during the workshop “Challenges in social movement research”. This workshop took place within the course on Social Movements, NGOs and Civil Society that runs during the second term of the MA courses at ISS as part of the specialization Social Movements and Action Research Techniques (SMART).

Dilemmas as questioning (Silke Heuman)

Silke shared some anecdotes of her own research experiences while interviewing members of the Feminist Movement and the Pro-life/Pro-Choice/Anti-Abortion Movement in Nicaragua. Silke quoted her own PhD supervisor saying to her: if during your interviews you are hearing the same story, then something should be wrong‘. This set the ground for the dilemma that Silke expressed to us in the form of a question: which is the role that the researcher plays to critically interrogate social movement’s practices and agendas, specially when doing research on a social movement with whom one do not share the same goals and aspirations (for example, violent and pro-nazi movements). Silke also mentioned her current dilemma how to write about social movements in a way that promotes critical reflection within the movement and that exposes the invisible spots that need to be addressed in a way that is fair to the trust that was generated in the research process.

Border-crossing: academic/activist (Wendy Harcourt)

Wendy share with us what has meant for her to be inbetween position as academic and activist in the social sciences. For example, Wendy mentioned that this border crossing position has allowed her to realize her task as ‘translator’ of social movements goals and aspirations into critical social policy. For me, it was particularly interesting to hear how Wendy ‘the activist’ has been the ‘object’ of study of academics doing research ON social movements she has been part of and how this has been an uncomfortable situation but also one that inspired her to write about the movement she was part of. However, this decision opened new dilemmas: how to find her own voice in the process of writing and  to reflect upon the contributions and limitations of her own organization/movement.

Research ON/WITH (Rosalba Icaza)

I picked up from Wendy’s experience of been an ‘object’ of research and how this also happened to me as an anti-free trade activist and Zapatista urban supporter in Mexico City. I focused my contribution on the dilemma of doing research ON or WITH social movements and how I have chosen the second direction as a political positioning within my own discipline (International Relations). I explained why I took this position by indicating that social movements have been largely constructed as “objects of study” and that I see this as a colonized (oppressive) form of doing research ON social movements because it transforms them into some kind of organisms (I said ‘amebas’) that we can dissect and known in every possible way. I mentioned that to do research WITH social movements has meant to me to take seriously the invitation of Colombian Anthropologist Arturo Escobar of asking in which ways social movements praxis challenges our concepts instead of simply using concepts and frameworks (e.g. political opportunity structures) to study them. Finally, I mentioned that the decision of doing research WITH social movements has opened new dilemmas that like Silke and Wendy I expressed in the form of questions: how to actually listen to voices within social movements that have been produced as invisible, how to represent those voices in a non-colonized/oppressive way within academic and non academic outputs and how to develop collaborations with social movements in which this unsolved dilemmas are taken into account.

Trust how to build it up and how to sustain it (Kees Biekart)

Kees focused his contribution on the question of trust and how difficult is to built it up and to sustain it during and after the process of research while  trying to keep a critical perspective on social movements and  confronted with the question who set the parameters for what is critical? Kees share with us his experience of doing collaborative research with social movements in Central America in which representatives of the movements themselves defined the focus of research, but how this also excluded many other voices. Therefore, for him the inclusion/exclusion dilemma was not solved by this option.

Some Lessons to keep in mind

After all these interesting contributions, in my view, there are 3 lessons to keep in mind:

1. Dilemmas were presented in each case as deeply related to our own subjective experiences in the process of doing research with/on social movements

2. Dilemmas in each of the presentations were also expressed in the form of open questions. To me, this was particularly interesting and inspiring as a pedagogical device that can instigate further reflections and research ideas in the students and our colleagues interested on social movements.

3. And finally, as Silke mentioned in the workshop, “dilemmas emerge because when we deal with Social Movements it means that we are dealing with people as AGENTS and ACTORS and not with ‘objects’ of study”. This for me was the core of our discussion.



International Institute of Social Studies

CIRI aims to scale up and identify synergies between existing research at ISS on civic agency and change agents, as drivers of societal change and development. This blog is a forum on which to share and discuss themes and issues which fall within the broad framework of the programme.

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